SC affirms seaman’s $90,000 disability benefits

Published August 2, 2021, 9:30 AM

by Rey Panaligan 

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court (SC) has affirmed the 2016 ruling of the Panel of Voluntary Arbitrators (PVA) which awarded $90,000 (roughly P4.5 million) in disability benefits to a seaman who contracted kidney cancer while working in an ocean-going vessel.

Ordered to pay the disability benefits to Celso B. Caraan of Bataan were Grieg Philippines, Inc. (Grieg PH), Ernesto C. Mercado and Grieg Star AS, a shipping company based in Norway.

The SC decision, written by Associate Justice Amy C. Lazaro Javier, reversed the 2020 ruling of the Court of Appeals (CA) which nullified the PVA’s grant of disability benefits to Caraan.

Associate Justice Amy C. Lazaro Javier

“Clearly, petitioner (Caraan) was able to establish by substantial evidence that his illness was compensable as it is work-connected and he suffered from it during the term of his contract, especially so when Grieg PH failed to adduce any evidence to refute his allegations,” the SC said.

The SC decision also stated: “Here, the pieces of evidence presented offer direct proof of the existence of petitioner’s illness during his tenure as a seafarer and its probable connection to his working conditions. Hence, it should have been inevitable for the Court of Appeals to have simply affirmed these factual findings of the PVA.”

Caraan started working for Grieg PH in 2006 under various employment contracts. On Aug. 29, 2013, he signed a new contract and left the Philippines on Sept. 4, 2013 on board MV Star Loen.

Case records showed that as motorman, Caraan’s work “involved strenuous physical activities for his 18-hour shift of sounding tanks, assisting in all maintenance, lifting of heavy equipment, cleaning of incinerators, septic tank and engine room using carbon remover and strong chemical cleanser, regular checking of engine temperature, refilling of tanks of oil and other lubricants and monitoring of motors and machineries.”

“He was also exposed to all kinds of noxious gases, harmful fumes and excessive noise while inside the engine room. As to his dietary provision, he could only eat the food available on board which consisted mainly of high fat, high cholesterol and low fiber food. He even had to endure the call of nature due to the demands of his job. Due to his working conditions and dietary provision, he experienced pain while urinating and discharged blood in his urine,” case records also stated.

On medical check up in Japan on May 31 and June 1, 2014, Caraan was “initially diagnosed with urinary tract infection (UTI) and chronic prostatitis and advised to have a follow-up check-up.”

He was repatriated on June 1, 2014. “Upon his arrival in Manila, Grieg PH did not fetch him at the airport so he just went straight home to Bataan,” the records stated.

Using the company-issued health card, he consulted a physician who prescribed a kidney-urinary-bladder ultrasound and urinalysis at the Bataan Saint Joseph Hospital. Caraan’s wife informed Grieg PH via mobile phone that her husband could not personally report to the office due to his medical condition.

A series of laboratory tests revealed he had a mass in his left kidney. On June 14, 2014, his left kidney was surgically removed at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute (NKTI). Biopsy later confirmed that he had renal cell carcinoma, a common kidney cancer in adults.

Two physicians Caraan consulted six months after his operation advised he was no longer fit to work in any capacity as seaman. He was advised to have maintenance medication to prevent cardiovascular complication.

On June 15, 2015, he filed a petition for disability benefits.

Grieg PH opposed. It told the PAV Caraan was not repatriated but was sent home due to finished contract. It also claimed that he forfeited his disability claim for failure to report to the company-designated physician within three days from repatriation.

Ruling in favor of Caraan, the PAV – in a decision dated March 5, 2016 –said, among other things, that “he substantially complied with the 3-day reportorial requirement under Section 20(A)(3) of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC) when his wife called Grieg PH to report that he was incapacitated to physically report due to his hospitalization right after repatriation”

It also ruled that “while there was no post-employment medical examination by the company-designated physician, petitioner had undergone an equivalent post-employment medical examination by the doctor of his choice who diagnosed him with renal cell carcinoma; petitioner’s illness is compensable under Section 32(a) of POEA-SEC; and petitioner was not gainfully employed for more than two hundred forty (240) days due to lifelong medication as certified by his physicians of choice.”

On top of the $90,000 award in disability benefits, the PAV also ordered the payment of 10 percent in lawyer’s fees.

When Grieg PH’s motion for reconsideration was denied on May 19, 2016, it elevated the case to the CA.

In a decision dated Sept. 13, 2019, the CA reversed PAV’s ruling. It said that Caraan was not entitled to disability benefits because he failed to report and submit himself to a post-employment medical examination by the company-designated physician within three working days upon his arrival in Manila.

The CA did not accept Caraan’s argument that he was exempt from physically reporting to the company-designated physician because he was physically incapacitated to do so. Also rejected by the CA was the call made by his wife to Grieg PH to notify his medication condition.

When Caraan’s motion for reconsideration was denied by the CA on March 20, 2020, he elevated the case to the SC.

Resolving Caraan’s petition, the SC said:

“… the three-day period filtering mechanism is not a bright line test. It is not an all-or-nothing requirement that non-compliance automatically means disqualification. The three-day period cannot be interpreted in this manner.

“For the whole concept of disability benefits to workers is an affirmative social legislation, and the disability benefits in question are a specie of this broad gamut of affirmative social legislation.

“In employee compensation, persons charged by law to carry out the Constitution’s social justice objectives should adopt a liberal attitude in deciding compensability claims and should not hesitate to grant compensability where a reasonable measure of work-connection can be inferred.

“Only this kind of interpretation can give meaning and substance to the law’s compassionate spirit as expressed in Article 4 of the Labor Code — that all doubts in the implementation and interpretation of the provisions of the Labor Code, including their implementing rules and regulations, should be resolved in favor of labor.

“When he arrived in the Philippines, petitioner was already ill and no longer in good physical condition to go back to Manila for treatment.

“Immediately, petitioner was subjected to series of laboratory tests to properly diagnose his ailment. Petitioner’s primary concern was his health rather than physically strain himself just to report to Grieg PH.

“Notice to petitioner’s employers would already be redundant for they were already aware of his medical condition prior to his repatriation. Indeed, his spouse even phoned his employer to inform it repeatedly about his ill condition.

“While Grieg PH insisted that petitioner was sent home because his contract has ended, it failed to present any evidence that it was unaware that petitioner had been initially treated in Japan for UTI and chronic prostatitis prior to his repatriation. The ship captain even issued the certificate stating that petitioner needed to have a follow-up check-up based on the doctor’s initial assessment on his condition.

“In fine, petitioner had already established his substantial compliance with the first requirement of disability claim. He was excused from the reporting requirement for he was physically incapacitated to personally report.

“Petitioner’s illness existed during the term of his employment and his work conditions aggravated it. Section 20(A)(4) of the 2010 POEA-SEC creates a disputable presumption that illnesses not listed as an occupational disease in Section 32 are work-related. However, this disputable presumption does not signify an automatic grant of compensation and/or benefits claim.

“The treatment by the health card-accredited doctors served the equivalent post-employment medical examination to show that petitioner’s illness existed during his employment. It is undisputed that petitioner had been with Grieg PH since 2006. Petitioner’s illness — renal cell carcinoma — could not have occurred overnight after repatriation.

“Studies suggest that early kidney cancer usually has no symptoms. By the time the symptoms are obvious, the cancer is usually in the late stage.

“Like in the case of petitioner, his kidney cancer gradually progressed while he was employed with Grieg PH until it manifested when petitioner complained of pain in urinating and discharging blood in his urine.

“Hence, at any time during his 8-year employment with Grieg PH, petitioner was already suffering from this illness while at sea. Petitioner had likewise proved that his working conditions aggravated his kidney ailment. As found by the arbitrators, petitioner had sufficiently established that his working conditions on board the vessel increased the risk of contracting the kidney disease. Grieg PH failed to dispute this and did not even offer any controverting evidence.

“It likewise remains undisputed that given his 8 years of employment with respondents and the conditions he was subjected to as a seafarer, complainant’s illness can be attributed to his work.

“Petitioner is entitled to attorney’s fees and 6% legal interest rate on the judgment award. We affirm the arbitrators’ award of attorney’s fees. Considering that petitioner was forced to litigate and incur expenses to protect his right and interest, he is entitled to an attorney’s fees of ten percent (l0%) of the monetary award pursuant to Article 2208(8) of the New Civil Code.

”Too…, the Court deems it proper to impose interest on the total monetary award at the legal interest rate of six percent (6%) from finality of this Decision until fully paid.”

The SC decision was promulgated last May 5 and was posted on its website last July 25.